Is it really helping? / by Safia Southey

We attend a school for politically minded students, for those who possess an insatiable curiosity regarding the world and all its complex intricacies. Adorned with our elitist education and politically and culturally-astute sensitivities, we are driven by a desire to go out and do good in the world, help underprivileged and disenfranchised communities.

This gets complicated very quickly. While most of us are highly critical of US interventionist policies, we can be hypocritical in this regard ourselves, embarking on a journey to provide disadvantaged groups with what we feel will help them most. Take TOMS shoes for example - while they dedicated their entire mission to giving children in Africa shoes, this really wasn’t necessary and had no real impact on the community; the money could have been spent in much more effective ways (Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people).

That’s not to say all smaller NGOs are useless, and that the ones focused on more individual-scale issues should be completely disregarded - as the cliche goes, helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person. This being said, it is important to see what impact is really being made. New Western NGOs pop-up every day with identical mission statements, created by idealistic youth who believe that they know best, when in reality the money that is used to establish new programs in low-income countries could be so much more useful if given to already developed organizations with the proper connections and infrastructure to actually make a substantial difference. Of course innovation is important, but for the most part these organizations don’t truly hold any unique qualities.

Somebody once told me that it is necessary to consider when starting a new job or traveling to a new place under the guise of humanitarian work, are you doing more for the community, or is the experience doing more for you? There is a thin line between traveling to gain experience and using the information to learn in a useful manner (if there is one), and taking advantage of a place. “White savior complex” is a common phrase, but I believe that the definition should be more broad than some Westerner who visits war-torn communities, volunteers in unsustainable ways, and takes selfies with POC where the visitor is still the center of attention. Many NGOs are guilty of this same syndrome, never asking what the communities actually need and instead imposing their preconceived notions of good onto them.

What is truly beneficial is a complex network of intersecting trajectories. Some may consider that simply learning about the world and sharing these experiences is enough, however it is necessary to weigh out the positives and negatives of entry (particularly considering the profound carbon footprint, whether the money you spent on flights could have been spent on actually making an impact, etc.). The money spent on voluntourism and mission trips, (which are often unsustainable, succeed primarily in making the attendees feel good about themselves), could be used towards actually making a difference.

Sometimes international studies can be orientalist in themselves, and oftentimes people romanticize other parts of the world and try to help in a way that can do much more harm than good (The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad). Despite this, I believe that intent and application of these studies are instrumental in establishing if someone is taking advantage of others’ difficult situations for their own good, whether that be for their career, personal imagine, or sense of morality.

There is no easy answer to these considerations, it is just necessary to maintain a sense of self-awareness and to constantly be re-evaluating your intentions. This is something I am trying to navigate myself, and honestly don’t have many answers. Still, I try my best to keep a critical eye and to practice effective altruism, and encourage others to do the same.